Press release issued by the Registrar
ZOUBOULIDIS v. GREECE (No. 2)
The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing its Chamber judgment1 in the case of Zouboulidis v. Greece (No. 2) (application no. 36963/06).
The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) to the European Convention on Human Rights on account of the limitation periods applied for payment of debts owed by the State to one of its contractual employees.
Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court awarded the applicant 35,000 euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary damage and held that the finding of a violation would constitute sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicant. (The judgment is available only in French.)
- Principal facts
The applicant, Ioannis Zouboulidis, was born in 1960 and lives in Prague. He is married and has two minor children. He is a civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and between 1993 and 2002 worked as an usher at the Greek Embassy in Berlin under a permanent contract governed by private law.
Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“the Ministry”) receive a basic salary plus allowances and additional payments. Mr Zouboulidis received an expatriation allowance but the Ministry refused him entitlement to the additional payments for dependent children as the law drew a distinction between officials employed under a private-law contract and others.
Further to an action brought in the civil courts in May 1998, the Athens Court of First Instance held on 19 June 2002 that Mr Zouboulidis was entitled to these additional payments for the period from 1 June 1998 to 31 December 2001, amounting to a sum of EUR 65,432 plus default interest from the date on which the payments had been due, on the basis of a new law that removed the distinction between private-law and other contracts.
The judgment of 19 June 2002 was reversed on appeal in September 2003. The Court of Appeal confirmed the applicant’s entitlement to the payments with effect from 24 March 1998 but ruled that the payments for the period from 1 June to 31 December 1998 were precluded by the two-year limitation period applied in the specific case of State debts. Lastly, it held that Mr Zouboulidis was entitled to the payments with effect from 1 January 1999 to 31 December 2001, plus default interest from the date on which notice of his action had been served on the State.
Mr Zouboulidis appealed on points of law in December 2003, challenging the privilege of the two-year limitation period accorded to the State alone and the rule that the date from which default interest was charged was the day on which notice of the action was served on the State and not the day on which the payments in question had been due.
- Procedure and composition of the Court
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 11 August 2006. The admissibility and merits of the case were examined at the same time.
Judgment was given by a Chamber of seven judges, composed as follows:
Nina Vajić (Croatia), President,
Christos Rozakis (Greece),
Khanlar Hajiyev (Azerbaijan),
Dean Spielmann (Luxembourg),
Sverre Erik Jebens (Norway),
Giorgio Malinverni (Switzerland),
George Nicolaou (Cyprus), judges,
and also Søren Nielsen, Section Registrar.
- Summary of the judgment2
Relying on Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the applicant alleged that the application of shorter limitation periods for the State than those provided for by the Civil Code and the calculation of default interest with effect from the date on which notice of the action was served on the State, constituting an exception to the rules of labour law, had reduced the value of his claims, without being justified on any public-interest grounds.
Decision of the Court
Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
It was not disputed that Mr Zouboulidis was entitled to a supplement to his expatriation allowance and that he had a certain and enforceable claim to payment from the Greek State of the additional amounts in question, plus default interest.
The Court noted that the two-year condition departed from the provisions of civil law and meant that the period within which the State could enforce its own claims was two to ten times as long as the limitation period for enforcing claims against the State. The Court further considered that, although the applicant had been assigned to a public administrative authority, in the present case the State had been acting like any other private employer.
While privileges or immunities might be necessary for an administrative authority where it discharged duties governed by public law, the mere fact of belonging to the State structure was not sufficient in itself to justify the application of privileges in all circumstances; such privileges had to be necessary for the proper performance of public duties.
The Greek Government had cited the public-interest ground of ensuring that the State’s debts were settled promptly so as to avoid an unforeseen burden on its budget, but they did not provide any specific evidence as to the financial interests at stake. The Court considered that the mere interest of the State’s cash flow could not in itself be treated as a public or general interest justifying interference with individual rights, in this case with Mr Zouboulidis’ right of property, through the application of the two-year limitation period and the granting of preferential treatment to the State in fixing the date from which default interest was charged.
The Court thus concluded that the fair balance to be struck between the protection of property and the requirements of the general interest had been upset, in breach of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
The Court’s judgments are accessible on its Internet site (http://www.echr.coe.int).
Stefano Piedimonte (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 42 04)
Tracey Turner-Tretz (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 35 30)
Paramy Chanthalangsy (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 28 30)
Kristina Pencheva-Malinowski (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 35 70)
Céline Menu-Lange (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 58 77)
The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.
1 Under Article 43 of the Convention, within three months from the date of a Chamber judgment, any party to the case may, in exceptional cases, request that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, a panel of five judges considers whether the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or its protocols, or a serious issue of general importance, in which case the Grand Chamber will deliver a final judgment. If no such question or issue arises, the panel will reject the request, at which point the judgment becomes final. Otherwise Chamber judgments become final on the expiry of the three-month period or earlier if the parties declare that they do not intend to make a request to refer.
2 This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.